ATLANTA - Dusty Baker seemed to realize midway through his answer about Gio Gonzalez's ragged start during today's 7-3 loss to the Braves that some on the outside might be rolling their eyes.
"He made some good pitches," the Nationals manager insisted. "I mean, you didn't see those balls blooping in there, and stuff? You can't do anything about that. He made his pitch."
Baker then paused to make sure he addressed what everyone surely was thinking at that moment.
"I'm not just saying that to say that," the manager continued. "He made his pitch. Sometimes they hit it. Heck, they only hit one ball hard, which was Freddie Freeman's ball, I think."
Most don't want to hear that sort of answer after a game like this, a game in which Gonzalez was charged with six runs on nine hits and lasted only 4 1/3 innings, all against a Braves club that is battling for next summer's No. 1 draft pick.
Thing is, it's true. The Braves didn't hit the ball hard against Gonzalez.
The average exit velocity on the nine hits he allowed was 85.3 mph. That's below the average exit velocity across baseball on every ball put into play, not just the hits. Only three of the nine hits today left the bat at a speed greater than 88 mph (including Freeman's RBI single in the third inning, which left his bat at 93 mph).
Also consider the fact Gonzalez didn't walk a batter (though he did plunk two) and struck out seven, further evidence of some effectiveness.
Gonzalez took a bit more blame for the outcome than Baker attributed to him, though he also shrugged off much of this start as a case of bad luck.
"I just left some of those pitches up," the left-hander said. "That's what they did: Just got enough of the ball to put it in front of some of the guys and find the hole when they needed it. Just a different game today. You just got to take it for what it is. Got beat by a lot of singles."
However you choose to evaluate this outing, the outcome does still matter. And it's going to matter a whole lot more in a couple of weeks when Gonzalez theoretically is starting either Game 3 or Game 4 of the NLDS.
The state of the Nationals rotation is such: Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark are all but locked into the No. 1 and No. 2 slots. But with Stephen Strasburg unlikely to return from an elbow strain in time for at least the first round of the postseason, the Nats are going to need a combination of Gonzalez and Joe Ross (who makes his return to the mound Sunday after a 2 1/2-month stint on the disabled list with a shoulder injury) to round out the group.
Baker has challenged Gonzalez to step things up and seize this opportunity, but the results have been a mixed bag. Over his last eight starts, the lefty sports a 5.63 ERA. Of greater concern: He has failed to complete at least six innings in five of those starts, and he's failed to complete at least five innings in three of those.
Gonzalez only has two, maybe three, more opportunities to pitch before the regular season ends. Would it be important to enter the playoffs on more of an upswing?
"Most important is trying to stay healthy," he said. "Obviously, you also want to show you can pitch in this rotation. It's just a crappy way to look at it, the way today's game went. So as far as that, I can look at some of the positives. Big strikeouts in certain innings, certain hitters, I can take with me. But I was sloppy today. Some hit-by-pitches. Just falling in their count in certain situations. You have to learn to take the good with the bad sometimes. ... Today was just one of those days you just put behind you and learn from it."
The Nationals can only hope he's a quick learner, because time's running out.